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Qishloq Ovozi

The death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov (center) has brought the issue of succession in neighboring Central Asian countries into sharp focus. Also pictured: Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (left) and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right)

With the death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov earlier this month, the question of who will succeed Central Asia's other longstanding rulers has come to the fore. (The views expressed on this podcast do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

The announcement of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's death at the start of this month seems to have touched off a chain reaction in Central Asia. After years of wondering what the succession processes would look like in the region, we are now getting a glimpse of how these things work.

To look at how these succession schemes are playing out, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, a panel, to discuss the current efforts being made on behalf of a second head of state.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Scotland, we were joined by our friend Dr. Luca Anceschi, chair of the Central Asian Studies Center at the University of Glasgow. Participating from Washington was Erica Marat, assistant professor and director of the Homeland Defense Fellowship Program at the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University and author of numerous articles on Central Asia. And Bakhtiyor Nishanov, deputy director of Eurasia at the International Republican Institute from Washington D.C., also took part from Washington. I've been waiting for these moments in Central Asia for a couple of decades, so I was in on this also.

The focus of the talk was Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. All three countries took steps related to the position of the second leader of their countries.

The first to move was of course Uzbekistan, driven to action by the death of longtime leader Karimov. Authorities stalled on naming an interim leader in the first days after the September 2 announcement of Karimov's death.

Sidestepping The Constitution

Constitutionally, the powers of the president should have transferred to the chairman of the Senate, Nigmatullo [Nigmatillo] Yuldashev. Instead, at a joint session of parliament on September 8, Yuldashev declined the responsibility and urged that the job go to Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev.

Nishanov noted, "The constitution was specifically amended to prevent this kind of power grab, to prevent the prime minister coming in and just talking over."

Ignoring the constitution in Uzbekistan is nothing new. Authorities there disregarded the two-term presidential limit when Karimov was elected to a third term in 2007 and a fourth term in 2015. In both those cases the seven-year term also expired well before the elections were held.

Nishanov said Uzbekistan has demonstrated "complete disregard for the constitution" in this transition process, which may bode ill for the country's future.

But it's not just Uzbekistan.

Following the death of Turkmen Saparmurat Niyazov in late December 2006, the constitution of Turkmenistan was similarly overlooked. There, too, the chairman of the Senate was constitutionally next in line to take over as acting president. But that person, Ovezgeldy Ataev, was arrested shortly after the official announcement of Niyazov's death and Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was named acting leader.

Berdymukhammedov won the February 2007 presidential election despite a constitutional prohibition on an acting head of state running in such polls.

Authoritarian Agendas

Parliament passed amendments to Turkmenistan's constitution on September 15 that lifted an age limit (70 years) and extended the presidential term from five to seven years, paving the way for Berdymukhammedov to remain in power until he dies.

Anceschi said the constitutions the Central Asian states approved in the early 1990s were "in most cases highly presidential," and he added, "They've [the constitutions] been amended with authoritarian agendas in mind, and that entrenched even further authoritarian politics."

The amendments to Turkmenistan's constitution were passed less than two weeks after Karimov was officially declared dead. It is true the proposed changes to the constitution were first announced in early January and published, for "public discussion," in February. But the date for parliament to vote on the amendments was never entirely clear, only that it would happen in the second half of the year.

Karimov's death might have spurred Turkmenistan's second president to have the measures passed sooner.

Nazarbaev Shuffles The Deck

The death almost certainly seems to have affected the succession preparations in Kazakhstan.

"Seeing what happened over there in Uzbekistan, considering that [Kazakhstan's President Nursultan] Nazarbaev is only two years younger than Karimov… it must have had some impact on his way of seeing the future," Anceschi said. He added, "I think that what we've seen in the last week is the beginning of a transition."

Nazarbaev started to shuffle government officials on September 8. Among the changes, Nazarbaev moved trusted ally Prime Minister Karim Masimov over to head the Committee for National Security [KNB]. Some saw this as a demotion but in Uzbekistan the relatively smooth transition of power has been overseen by the shadowy head the National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov.

Nazarbaev might be imitating that strategy of a trusted figure being in charge of national security as a guarantee for the president's family after the president is gone. Masimov is additionally well suited to this job since he is part ethnic Uyghur and so cannot aspire to the presidency because that would risk angering neighbor and major trading partner China, as Beijing has been trying to suppress Uyghur nationalist sentiment in the western Xinjiang region [bordering Kazakhstan] for decades.

Grooming A Successor?

Nazarbaev named Deputy Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintaev as prime minister. Sagintaev emerged from relative political obscurity at the end of 2015, appearing ever more frequently in the media, and addressing an increasingly wide range of issues.He appears to have been groomed for something.

Nazarbaev's eldest daughter Darigha was appointed to the Senate on September 13, sparking speculation she might succeed her father. As in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, according to Kazakhstan's constitution the speaker of the Senate takes over in the event a president cannot perform the duties of office. Darigha is only a Senator now, but some feel it is just a matter of time before she rises to become speaker.

However, Marat said it was unlikely Darigha would ever be president. "When you look at Kazakhstan, I think the power transition is going to be different because in Kazakhstan the structure of the state and political elites is different," she said. "There's more competition and there is more bureaucracy, in the good sense of it."

"Tajikistan is the only contender for dynastic rule, power transfer, the son [of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon] is groomed to possibly become the next leader," she added.

It does seem that succession in Kazakhstan will be more complicated than in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. As Marat and Anceschi said, there are strong political and economic elites in Kazakhstan.

It also appears some of the transition team for the succession is taking shape, raising questions about what Nazarbaev is planning for the near future.

The Majlis discussed these issues in greater detail and looked at questions of popular acceptance for the second leaders, the durability of current policies, differences between an election and a coronation, a bit about the current situation in Kyrgyzstan, and other topics.

An audio recording of the Majlis can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: What Central Asian Succession Looks Like
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.


So why did Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov suddenly show up in Berlin on August 29?

Was the Turkmen president checking on his predecessor's rumored lost treasure during a recent trip to Germany? (The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

From independence in late 1991 until December 2006, Turkmenistan was ruled by Saparmurat Niyazov. He preferred to be called "Turkmenbashi," literally the "head of the Turkmen."

Turkmenistan possesses the fourth-largest reserves of natural gas in the world. The country has made a great amount of money from that. The population is some 5 million people. Most of that money never benefitted them.

Instead, Turkmenbashi spent lavishly on new marble buildings in the capital, at Awaza on the Caspian Sea coast, and on monuments to himself, including the infamous 75-meter-high tripod with a gold statute of himself mounted on top that rotated so Niyazov's face was always turned in the direction of the sun.

According to a 2006 report from the London-based corruption watchdog Global Witness, Niyazov also had more than $3 billion in foreign bank accounts, "some $2 billion of which appears to reside in the Foreign Exchange Reserve Fund (FERF) at Deutsche Bank in Germany." The report also said that "Global Witness has discovered that, according to a 2001 contract, gas revenues from 2002 to 2006 were intended to be paid into Central Bank of Turkmenistan account No. 949924500 at Deutsche Bank, Frankfurt."

Niyazov died in late December 2006 and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov took over as president.

On August 29, Berdymukhammedov visited Berlin. It was a curious visit, lasting one day. A Turkmen-German business forum was planned and President Berdymukhammedov, apparently somewhat belatedly, chose to lead that delegation.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, learned there was some debate in the German government as to whether Chancellor Angela Merkel should meet with Berdymukhammedov while he was in Berlin.

Turkmenistan's human rights record has been abysmal for 25 years and despite the country's gas riches, Western leaders are not anxious to host Turkmen leaders.

Berdymukhammedov appeared at a press conference with Merkel, one in which his bodyguard brought in water to replace that offered by the German hosts.

The Turkmen president was asked about the rights situation, a question he was clearly expecting, and he deflected the issue by saying that Turkmenistan's people were supplied with free gas, electricity, and water, so how could the government be repressing them?

He omitted mentioning that he had earlier this year proposed canceling state subsidies for all those things, saying Turkmenistan had advanced so much over the last 25 years that those subsidies were no longer needed.

He did repeat that Turkmenistan was prepared to supply Europe with gas, something he has said dozens of times over the last few years, usually from inside Turkmenistan where no one asks about human rights.

It is doubtful Berdymukhammedov essentially invited himself to Germany so he could answer uncomfortable questions about the respect for rights in Turkmenistan. So what was the great need to make a quick trip to Germany?

Let's open up the lid of Turkmenbashi's treasure chest again.

Tom Mayne, who worked on the 2006 Global Witness report, says that after Niyazov's death, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development pressed Turkmen authorities to close some of the off-budget funds and accounts highlighted in the 2006 report, and they did. However, according to the source, Berdymukhammedov opened a new "Stabilization Fund," though it is unclear if it was with Deutsche Bank.

In 2008, Turkmenistan also passed a law on hydrocarbons. According to the Natural Resource Governance Institute website, the law "is publicly available but states only general principles and does not include fiscal terms." Furthermore, "rather than promoting transparency, the law prohibits government agencies from disclosing information about the hydrocarbons sector."

According to RFE/RL's source, the law allocates 20 percent of revenues from gas sales to the state budget, while the other 80 percent goes to the State Agency on Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources under the President of Turkmenistan.

On March 21, 2014, Global Witness released more information. Referring back to the 2006 report, the corruption watchdog said Turkmenistan's "foreign exchange reserves have grown substantially, with international financial institutions estimating that the country held as much as $20 billion around 2009." The 2014 release continued, "Global Witness believes that as much as 75 percent of this could still be held in the off-budget 'FERF.'"

While in Berlin, Berdymukhammedov met with top officials from several businesses, including Siemens, Airbus, and Cargolux. Turkmen state media reported that Berdymukhammedov was discussing partnerships.

It's doubtful many German companies would be anxious to rush into Turkmenistan's business world, considering the experience of German oil and gas company DEA (formerly RWE Dea AG).

DEA signed a production-sharing agreement in 2009 for a block in Turkmenistan's Caspian Sea sector. In late 2015 DEA announced it was withdrawing from Turkmenistan. The opposition website Alternative News of Turkmenistan reported that "the Germans were simply tired of the bureaucratic entanglements."

If he didn't come home with new business partners it wouldn't necessarily mean the trip was a failure, however. Most telling about his visit were the meetings Berdymukhammedov reportedly had with people he already knew.

The pro-government website Turkmenistan.ru reported the Turkmen president met that day with "Deutsche Bank AG Executive Director for Central and Eastern Europe Peter Tilles and the bank's Senior Adviser Jurgen Fitchen."

Mayne notes that, in September 2014, Tilles and Fitchen were in Turkmenistan to meet with Berdymukhammedov.

So there is good reason to believe that banking was definitely part of Berdymukhammedov's reason for being in Berlin. The question is why now?

Turkmenistan could surely use some extra money.

The country currently has only one customer that pays cash for natural-gas supplies -- China -- and China has loaned Turkmenistan billions of dollars, which Turkmenistan is repaying with gas. It's unclear how much actual money Turkmenistan receives from gas shipments to China. And even then, the price of gas is less than half of what it was just two years ago.

The national currency depreciated in value by 23 percent last year but has held steady at $1 to 3.5 manats, though the black market rate has jumped, touching seven manats to $1 at times recently.

On September 6, the Turkmen opposition website Chrono-tm.org reported that police, teachers, and medical workers in two of Turkmenistan's five provinces -- Lebap and Mary -- had not been paid for the last three months.

Azatlyk has been reporting for months about layoffs in various sectors of Turkmenistan, including the gas and oil sector, the backbone of the country's economy. There are no official unemployment figures for Turkmenistan but some opposition websites claim the figure to be more than half the eligible workforce.

Berdymukhammedov likes to be called "Arkadag," the Protector. But there was no word from Berdymukhammedov, or any other official, indicating that the Protector might be bringing any of the money from this "Stabilization Fund" or "FERF" back home to help create jobs, pay wages on time, or prolong state subsidies.

There was a report, however, that Berdymukhammedov attended the opening of a new $100 million, five-star hotel at the Awaza resort area on September 9.

The "Gami" (Boat) Hotel joins several other multimillion-dollar hotels along the Awaza strip. Reports indicate occupancy at any of them is rarely even 30 percent. A fence keeps locals from coming onto the grounds of the resort area.

Turkmenistan is also hosting the fifth Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games next year and is in the process of spending billions of dollars on facilities for the event.

In its 2006 report, Global Witness said, "It is clear that the money is not being spent on them [the people]: standards of health, education, and living quality have plummeted since independence in 1991."

That is all still true. And it appears that whatever business Berdymukhammedov had with one of the German banks that was last known to be holding billions of dollars from his country, it had nothing to do with helping out Turkmenistan's people.

Thanks to Azatlyk, and to the many people outside RFE/RL who helped prepare this report

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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